The college choice process: A longitudinal study of decision-making among students and families

Caroline Daly Wilson, University of Pennsylvania


The process by which students move from secondary to higher education has been called "the great sorting" by B. Alden Thresher, former director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his words, "It is a process of great complexity, not fully understood by the students, their parents or advisors, or the educators who participate in it" (Thresher, as cited in Menaker, 1975, pp. 32-33). The current study is intended to address this lack of understanding. Previous research on the topic has relied on quantitative, usually survey, methods to describe large-scale patterns of college choices according to student, family, and institutional characteristics. Yet rarely has the process by which these decisions are made, using both qualitative and longitudinal methods, been examined. In this study, nine high school seniors were followed over a period of fourteen months, with data collected through family interviews, student focus groups, and journals maintained by both students and parents. A fourth source of data was provided by student feedback to their individual "stories," once they were written. The study was conducted within a middle to high-socioeconomic community; all participants attended a public school from which approximately ninety percent pursue some type of post secondary education. The conceptual framework used to interpret the findings is based on the theory of cognitive dissonance, originally proposed by Festinger in 1964 and later revised by Janis and Mann in 1977. According to this theory, individuals faced with decisions in which they are trying to satisfy multiple objectives will use certain cognitive strategies to alleviate their stress resulting from: not having perfect information about the available alternatives; not completely understanding their own goals; and not being able to satisfy all of their objectives in choosing one option. The use of the strategies predicted by the cognitive dissonance theory was frequently observed among the students seeking their "ideal" college choice. For example, students often procrastinated taking the steps necessary to apply to colleges and make a final choice of where to attend. Some made their decisions quickly in order to avoid what they anticipated would be a stressful year-long experience, while others avoided the anxiety by using a single criterion to choose a single school to which they applied (and fortunately were admitted).

Subject Area

Higher education|Secondary education|Occupational psychology

Recommended Citation

Wilson, Caroline Daly, "The college choice process: A longitudinal study of decision-making among students and families" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9727317.